Building urban climate resilience in the Solomon Islands

Building urban climate resilience in the Solomon Islands

The informal settlements of Honiara are home to almost half the city’s population. The complex challenges of these vulnerable urban communities call for tailored, multi-faceted solutions.

Clean drinking water, sanitation, waste management: these are some of the basic needs that are a daily struggle for the urban poor living in Honiara’s informal settlements.

Add in the impact of a changing climate, like cyclones and more damaging and more frequent flooding, and survival in these rapidly growing communities can become truly precarious.

As urbanisation pulls ever more Solomon Islanders towards the capital, unplanned and self-constructed settlements continue to expand, outstripping government capacity to respond.

It’s a complex problem that demands a complex, multi-faceted response.

And that’s what a team of RMIT researchers is providing, in a large-scale project funded by the United Nations that’s bringing together expertise from engineering and architecture to land management and geospatial science.

RMIT News talked with project leader Professor Darryn McEvoy about the team’s recent site visits in Honiara, the actions they are planning and the critical importance of working across disciplines to drive real, sustainable change. 

Almost half of Honiara's residents live in informal settlements.

Tell us about the Climate Resilient Honiara project and what you’re aiming to achieve.

This is a four-year project supported by the UNFCCC Adaptation Fund, and administered by UN-Habitat, that’s working to reduce the vulnerability of those living in informal settlements, through a range of co-designed initiatives.

The project is an initiative involving Honiara City Council, the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Survey, and the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, and Disaster Management. RMIT is providing the scientific support, with a multi-disciplinary team drawn from six different schools.

In the first year, we’re designing and piloting climate resilience actions at community, ward and city levels based on local needs.

We’re working with the communities in five case study informal settlements to develop community profiles and scope and design ‘fit for purpose’ engineering solutions for their specific priorities.

At the ward level, ‘hard’ resilience actions will involve designing flood defences and multi-functional community buildings that can double as evacuation centres during disasters.

We’re also looking at ‘softer’ interventions like urban agriculture, nature-based solutions for climate-resilient open spaces, non-written communication of climate risks with women and youth groups, and guidelines to improve land administration in these contested peri-urban areas.

We’ll be learning from our pilot initiatives and expanding from there in subsequent years.

The project is working towards locally-relevant solutions to development needs. Photo: Darryn McEvoy

When you meet and talk with the residents in these informal settlements, what strikes you most about their experiences, their daily life?

When I started working in Honiara five years ago I made a personal commitment to do all I could for people that face all sorts of challenges on a daily basis.

They are a highly resilient people with a strong bond to the land and strong cultural networks that they turn to in times of need.

Indeed, their key strengths are these close ties and their deep knowledge of this place and its people. In all my local engagement activities I try to use this to its full potential.

However, rural-urban migration, ongoing development needs, limited urban infrastructure, and a changing climate are going to amplify existing problems unless urban management processes are improved.

This is where RMIT can provide scientific support to change the living conditions in these communities, not just in Honiara but in cities across the Pacific.

Would you see a connection with the resilience developed from living in precarious circumstances, and the resilience needed to adapt to a changing and uncertain climate?

Solomon Islanders have long lived with natural hazards and extreme events. For example, a recent flood in 2014 killed 22 people, mainly those in informal settlements.

However, much of that knowledge is based on past experience. So the challenge is to integrate this with scientific knowledge to better understand future risks, and how they are changing in the context of urbanisation and climate change, to enable Solomon Islanders to better prepare and respond. 

The RMIT technical scoping team with community leaders and UN-Habitat staff. Photo: Usha Iyer-Raniga

You recently returned from your first field visit. What did you focus on?

We met with the local communities in three of our case study settlements - Aekefo, Ontong Java and Kukum Fishing Village - to assess their needs and scope possible engineering solutions.

Many of the original residents moved to these communities in the 1960s. While some of the growth of informal settlements since then is due to natural population growth, and the wider global trend of urbanisation, there’s also a cultural element.

The ‘Wantok’ system means extended family continue to move into Honiara from the ‘home island’ for employment, education or health care, so these communities continue to expand.

In terms of development needs, their biggest priorities are access to clean drinking water, sanitation, drainage, waste management, and flood protection.

As these settlements are unplanned and ‘organic’, this means there’s also big gap in data to inform planning and land management.

So as well as chemical, environmental, civil and humanitarian engineers, our team included experts in community profiling, geographic information systems, and land administration, who will be conducting surveys and potentially drone mapping to better understand the current extent and projected growth of the settlements.

How important is working directly with communities, engaging those affected in co-design and co-creation, in these kinds of projects?

A participatory approach is critical. This not only allows local people to be involved in the prioritisation of community needs but also to be involved in the co-design of resilience options, and even involved in the implementation of actions.

This promotes local ownership of actions and also contributes to long-term sustainability goals. Involving women in this empowerment process is important, given their roles in the community.

A site visit at Ontong Java. Photo: Darryn McEvoy

Who else is involved in this project on the ground, and what other collaborations are in train?

During the first field visit, we met with key stakeholders like Solomon Water and Solomon Islands National University, not only to discuss their involvement in the project, but also their capacity development needs.

We’re looking at how RMIT can actively support this capacity strengthening process over the life of the program, and beyond.

In support of this partnership agenda, an MoU between RMIT and Solomon Islands National University is now being progressed, initially focused on surveying, construction management, and geographic information systems.

I also met with the head of the World Bank CAUSE project, a $US15 million initiative that’s delivering community access infrastructure and waste management services in the Solomon Islands, including 79 vulnerable settlements in Honiara. There are obvious ways that our projects align, so we’re looking at how we can collaborate over coming years. Similar collaborative discussions are ongoing with the Solomon Islands Ministry of Health.

With the capital cities of the South Pacific growing rapidly, this project provides a platform for RMIT to be a leading ‘urban’ university in the region, providing scientific support and capacity building for local actions towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

Led by Professor Darryn McEvoy, Climate Resilient Honiara involves RMIT teaching and research staff from the School of Engineering, School of Science, School of Property, Construction and Project Management, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, School of Architecture and Urban Design, and the School of Media and Communication.

Story: Gosia Kaszubska

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